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Trudeau’s Canada: Low achievement, high self-esteem

Philip Cross: We feel very good about ourselves — but for no apparent reason

Author of the article:Philip Cross

Publishing date:Feb 26, 2021  

Justin Trudeau’s election in 2015 briefly made him a global hero to progressives before images of blackface, accusations of scandal, and a failure to deliver results dulled his allure.
Justin Trudeau’s election in 2015 briefly made him a global hero to progressives before images of blackface, accusations of scandal, and a failure to deliver results dulled his allure. PHOTO BY REUTERS/BLAIR GABLE/FILE PHOTO

Tristin Hopper’s weekend article in the National Post asked why Canada can’t get things done anymore, from procuring vaccines to renovating 24 Sussex Drive. Malaise about Canada’s performance is entirely justified as our pampered public sector fails to deliver and few Canadian brands dominate in the global marketplace.

With Trump gone, Canada becomes easy to ignore

Even our public sector seemed admirable by international standards. The 2009 Obamacare debate in the U.S. was filled with envious references to our health-care system, while obtaining a university education here required much less student debt. The World Bank touted “the Canadian Pension Model” to the world. By 2012, the National Post’s Joe O’Connor could write that “Canada got its swagger.” Justin Trudeau’s election in 2015 briefly made him a global hero to progressives before images of blackface, accusations of scandal, and a failure to deliver results dulled his allure. The boast that “the world needs more Canada” reached peak popularity with our 150th anniversary in 2017, although for many outside Canada it really meant “the world wants less Trump.” With Trump gone, Canada becomes easy to ignore.

Canada’s public sector is clearly underperforming these days. Our vaunted health-care system is inoculating Canadians slower than some Third World countries. The insolvency of Laurentian University highlights a vulnerability in the funding model developed by many universities, which rely heavily on high fees for foreign students who are now staying home because of the pandemic. The Canadian Pension Model turned out to be based on unrealistic assumptions about rates of return as interest rates plunged.

Even more worrisome is that Canada is good at starting companies but not at nurturing them to global stature. Global leadership in key industries has disappeared. Canada claims just one of the Financial Times’ 100 leading global firms: Shopify. Smaller countries like Denmark, Sweden, Spain, and South Korea all have at least two companies on this list.

Nor have we been able to build on our strengths in banking, energy, or technology. Attempts to capitalize on our reputation by creating an institute for banking stability in Toronto came to nothing. Canada’s major contribution to global finance today is to serve “as an ATM and safe deposit box for money laundering” from China, according to Jonathan Manthorpe’s The Claws of the Panda. Our assumed technological prowess in everything from artificial intelligence to aerospace has not produced a successor on a global scale to Nortel or Blackberry. Canada’s superpower status in energy is undermined, as Tristan Hopper noted, by an inability to build pipelines or new hydro dams.

In sum, Canada has the same problem as many of our children: high self-esteem without high levels of achievement. We feel very good about ourselves — but for no apparent reason.

Before becoming Governor of the Bank of Canada, Tiff Macklem co-authored an op-ed arguing that more companies should embrace “Brand Canada.” He questioned why business people shrink from the concept of brands for countries while embracing brands wholeheartedly in the corporate world. Canadian firms evidently do not share Macklem’s confidence in “Brand Canada.” All our major banks have stripped any homeland reference from their names, replacing Canada, Toronto, Montreal and Nova Scotia with meaningless initials. This seemed misplaced during the financial crisis but turns out to have been prescient as the glow has faded from Canada’s image.

Macklem easily could have asked why companies should adopt Brand Canada when Canada does not embrace them? In his 2017 book Canadian Failures, Alex Benay, previously Chief Information Officer of Canada, wrote that “the United States’ identity is as much defined by Ford and Apple as it is by Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain.” But rather than treating our companies as national symbols, Canadians are more inclined to identify with public programs like Medicare. We seem embarrassed by resource industries such as the oilsands, when they should be seen as symbols of Canadian innovation and technical know-how.

Ignoring commercial success has long-term consequences. Michael Bliss, Canada’s leading business historian, said “the one prescription for the eventual failure of the Canadian experiment in nationality would be to create an ever-widening gap in standards of living between the two North American democracies.” Nations need to figure out which parts of their identities function well and don’t need changing and which parts are no longer working and do need changing. In today’s Canada, a lot is not working well and needs changing, starting with an expensive yet oftentimes inept public sector and a widespread indifference to the importance of private sector efficiency and innovation.

Britain in the late 1970s showed that countries can pull themselves out of a prolonged tailspin. Unless Canada makes an equivalent turnaround in its current slide into mediocrity, others will soon be labelling us with the tag often applied to Brazil: “the country of the future — and always will be.” Potential is not enough. If you want to be a player on the global stage, at some point you have to prove your worth by actually delivering results.

Philip Cross is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Trudeau’s Canada: Low achievement, high self-esteem | Financial Post

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